People often ask survivalist Andrew Herrington which one item he would want if stranded on a desert island.
"A spot locator," Herrington says. "I just push a button and search and rescue teams come find me."
Trained in tracking, search and rescue, emergency medicine and martial arts, Herrington has more than 20 years of backcountry experience. He regularly leads wilderness survival courses and has even trained contestants for "Naked & Afraid," a survival reality television series.
Compared to such shows, which often depict would-be survivalists carving arrows and hunting wild game, real-life survival would be boring to watch, Herrington says.
"It would show the hiker studying maps, the weather, the route. They [would] have already taken a realistic wilderness survival class so if something happened, they could handle it. They would throw up a quick shelter and fire and wait for rescue," he says.
In early February, I participated in one of Herrington's Survival 101 weekend courses, co-lead by Jeanna Beck, graduate of the course.
The focus of the class was first aid, shelter and fire, taught through both lectures and hands-on experience. Our class was women only, so Herrington added self-protection to the curriculum. All the topics were taught in the field "so students can apply the lessons in demanding weather — the crappier the better," Herrington says.
Indeed. The rain fell for 30 continuous hours and the temperature remained in the low 40s. Prior to arriving, we had been instructed to bring only our daypacks — no tents or sleeping bags.
Here is what I learned.
1. How to make a wet lighter work again.
You're backpacking, collecting water at the creek's edge when you slip and fall in — with your lighter in pocket. Or, maybe you've signed up for a survival course and as part of the "reality-based" training, you must submerge your lighter — and your body — in a frigid stream.
We'll get to that story. But first things first: Before heading into the backcountry, be sure to remove the child safety on your lighter. On a Bic brand lighter (which works best), this is the metal guard covering the spark-wheel. The skinny strip of metal can easily be pried off with a pocketknife.
Now, back to the wild. Your lighter is now soaked and you're approaching hypothermia. What do you do?
First, turn the lighter upside down and thwack it several times on the palm of your hand. Then, blow into its opening. Finally, run the lighter's roller back and forth over tree bark until you see sparks. Bam. You should now have a flame.
2. How to build a super shelter.
A super shelter is like the cross between a greenhouse and a hobbit house.
"In my 20 years' experience, guess how many times I've had to build one of these?" Herrington says. "Zero."
Still, we built and slept in these structures, stuffing them with cattail-filled trash bags, our mattresses for the night.
Other than forest material, to build a super shelter you will need a plastic tarp or drop cloth and a space blanket (one of those shiny, heat-reflective blankets). These are two lightweight items you should start keeping in your daypack.
(Caveat: The killing of plants is not condoned unless it is truly a means of survival.)
To begin, you will need 6-8 saplings, each about 7-8 feet long. When harvesting the small trees, cut at an angle, creating a pointed end. Next, drive one of the points into the ground. Then, a few feet away, drive another point into the ground. Bend and weave the tops of those two saplings together to create an inverted "U." Repeat this twice more, creating a tunnel of inverted U's.
To give the structure more support, those two additional saplings may be woven into the sides.
Now, spread the space blanket over the domed top, tying its corners to the branches. Cover the space blanket with your plastic tarp or drop cloth, the edges of which should reach the ground and can be further secured with a heavy log.
The result is a heat-trapping tent. With a fire going outside its entrance, the tent can become downright balmy. But should a nonstop rainstorm extinguish that fire overnight, have a trash bag handy. In an emergency situation, it will suffice as a sleeping bag.
3. A trash bag will save your life. Seriously.
A clear trash bag is a much more practical means of emergency shelter than a super shelter, Herrington says.
Should you be forced to spend the night outside, pull the bag over your body and crouch on the ground, preferably next to a fire. But even sans fire, the trick can prevent hypothermia by trapping body heat and blocking wind. And at just half an ounce, the bag can easily be stowed in your pocket — and it should be, each and every time you go for a hike.
After all, "99 percent of search and rescues are people that just went out for a day hike," Herrington says.
4. Expired medicine won't kill you.
Over time, medicine becomes less potent, but it does not become harmful. And when faced with anaphylactic shock, an expired EpiPen is better than no EpiPen.
5. Fast over foraging.
Food was not restricted during our class due to its lack of importance in short-term scenarios. Besides, says Herrington, "Food is all you will think about if I starve you."
But in a real survival situation, fasting can be less risky than expending additional calories to trap game or forage wild fruits. Besides, Herrington says, successful trapping or foraging requires a big skill set, abundant resources and the assumption that you are not injured.
Here is how to calculate how many days you could go without food. First you will need to calculate the following numbers.
Your basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories you'd burn if you were to do nothing but rest for 24 hours. This is your body weight (BWT) X 10.
Your body mass index (BMI), or your percentage of body fat. This is your BWT in kilograms / your height in meters. Then, divide that answer again by your height in meters.
Now, determine how many pounds of fat you keep on your body. To avoid serious health consequences, women's body fat should not drop below 12 percent. Men's should not go below 5 percent.
BMI – 12% for women or 5% for men = %
% (in decimal form) X BWT = pounds of fat
Pounds of fat X 3,500 = the number of "spare" calories you carry on your body
Spare calories / (BMR + 500) = the number of days you could go without food
Based on these calculations, I could go roughly 26 days.
6. Be trackable.
The simplest way to be found if you're lost in the wild? Tell somebody where you're going. A trip plan outlines where you're headed, what you're driving, the equipment you're carrying and when you will return. Text one to a friend; leave one with a roommate. Jeanna Beck says when she hikes alone, she leaves a notepad in her front car seat, its cover scrawled with the words "Are you looking for me?" Inside is a copy of her trip plan.
With this information, says Herrington, a search and rescue's initial investigation can be compressed down to minutes.
7. Be the raccoon.
Metaphorically, of course. This was a concept we learned during the self-protection portion. Herrington asked, "If I had a raccoon in a cage right now, which one of you would be willing to reach your hand in and pull it out?"
Who would possibly want to contend with an angry raccoon, spitting and scratching for its life? When it comes to self-defense, apply this same idea. Should a person forcefully put his (or her) hands on you, don't pull away. Instead, attach yourself to your attacker. Snarl and bite. Fall to your butt and wrap your whole body around his legs.
Be the raccoon. Whatever this person hoped to take from you, show him that it is not worth the effort.
8. Box-breathing is everything.
The final drill of the day was cold water immersion, an exercise first in self-control and second in fire-building. Wearing only our base layers, our lighters and fire starter in pocket, we waded into the frigid, waist-high waters. Then we submerged to our necks. Instantly, I began hyperventilating — until I remembered Herrington's box-breathing technique: inhale, hold, exhale, hold, each for 3 seconds.
As my breath regulated, the bone-chilling pain faded. My consciousness heightened. I felt I could sit in that winter stream for hours. I wondered what else I could achieve by being in full command of my body.
9. You are stronger than you think.
Some time during the night, the rain extinguished my fire. Cold and damp, I slashed open one of my cattail-stuffed trash bags and climbed inside. "This is hard. But I could do harder," I thought.
Jeanna Beck remembers reading "Feeding the Rat: A Climber's Life on the Edge," in which author Al Alvarez writes," Every year you need to flush out your system and do a bit of suffering." The idea, Beck explains, is to discover a place far beyond your comfort zone.
"Because it's there," Alvarez writes.